What do poems do?

This semester, I’m teaching an introduction to poetry survey course. This course helps me more than my students, probably, because while drafting the curriculum and teaching the classes, I find myself forced (in a good way) to confront my own aims and purposes regarding the art. In addition, I discuss poetry more frequently with colleagues and friends when I’m teaching a class like this one.

A question I’ve been asking is: what can a poem do for a person? In particular, what do great poems do for people? The phrase “transform us” has been suggested, but I think that word in itself is too unspecific. Transform us in what ways? How?

Here are some of the answers I’ve received, and I think they are all worth considering. I’m always looking for more feedback on this question, so feel free to add comments…

• Poems help us to imagine or understand perspectives we do not ordinarily assume: “I never thought about it that way before.”

• Poems help us to feel understood and less isolated: “I thought I was the only one who felt like that!”

• Poems help us define our experiences: “I would never have described it that way, but it seems exactly right!”

• Poems help us to see what we take for granted: “I never realized how valuable that was before.”

• Poems help us to feel compassion: “I feel as though I went through this experience because I read this poem.”

• Poems help us to reflect and to think about what is beautiful and terrible; they offer solace and extend our grasp of the human situation.

These things–and others–may, in fact, transform our lives. Not every transformation is a bolt from the blue; most transformations occur gradually, through a series of small movements and almost imperceptible changes the way a zygote grows into an adult being.

What else do poems do for people?

12 comments on “What do poems do?

  1. yasniger says:

    Reblogged this on yasniger and commented:
    The poem is a powerful tool


  2. teasbook says:

    Poems dig deep into the inner soul of who you are. They bring out your true character, your true thoughts, your deepest passions. They define YOU! 😀


  3. This will probably sound really silly, but I’ve always enjoyed poems that rhyme, because they rhyme. I like to read the poem out loud and hear my voice lilt up and down.


    • Not silly at all! Although I use end rhyme infrequently when I write, I love to use internal rhyming. And I enjoy poems that rhyme for the reason you do: the music of them. What makes your voice lilt up and down is actually the meter or rhythm of the poem, and rhyme–especially rhyme at the ends of each line–magnifies that sound.
      Poetry began as an oral art. Rhyme helps us remember and memorize. It’s a very ancient aspect of poetry.


  4. bussokuseki says:

    For me as the author, the poem helps me refine my understanding of my own experience, too look deeply into the senses and emotions of a moment and make sense of it.

    When I read a great poem, I hope to have some similar experience, only it is understanding the life of another – and perhaps cycling back to my own.

    Great post, thanks.


    • Yes, I think a glimpse into understanding the life of another quite often brings us back to understanding our own experiences or feelings. The “cycling back” is significant, helps to develop compassion and tolerance, perhaps.


  5. Poems help us give voice to the stirring in our souls.


  6. Dave Bonta says:

    Favorite poems do all the same things that favorite works of music do, I think: alleviate boredom, get the pulse racing, adjust the mood, elevate serotonin levels, open the heart, etc.


  7. Sigrun says:

    I just read this:
    “Literature matters because it is how humanity, with all its losses and joys, can become a work of art”. It seemed to fit in your catalogue of answers to what poems do. It’s a quote I snapped from Lisa C. Taylor: http://www.lisactaylor.com/


  8. KM Huber says:

    “Not every transformation is a bolt from the blue” but so often, the effect of a poem is, and thus, we are jolted. Great post, Ann.



  9. SingingBones says:

    Poetry is also important because it is the medium in which words become non-linear, non-logical, and the poet becomes a kind of image-maker using words as his or her ‘paint’ I love poetry because it allows me to experience another kind of imaginative world, where I can breathe and enjoy all the sounds, colors, and feelings created by the experience of reading. There is a freedom within poetry that does not exist (by and large) within prose. Sounds like a fun and interesting class, best of luck with it! SB


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